Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.
“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.
Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.
Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.
There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.
The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.
“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”
Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.
“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”
David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”
The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.
To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.
In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.
Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.
While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.
“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.
One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”
Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.
Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.
“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).
The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.
In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.
The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”
Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”
KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.
Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.
“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”
Emulate Sri Lanka?
Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”
“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.
The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.
The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.
Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.
Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”
Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”
Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.
Report from Compass Direct News
With deadline for new constitution approaching, Christians fear end of secular government.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 30 (CDN) — Four years after Nepal became officially secular, fear is growing that the country could revert to the Hindu state it was till 2006, when proclaiming Christ was a punishable offense and many churches functioned clandestinely to avoid being shut down.
Concerns were heightened after Nepal’s deposed King Gyanendra Shah, once regarded as a Hindu god, broke the silence he has observed since Nepal abolished monarchy in 2008. During his visit to a Hindu festival this month, the former king said that monarchy was not dead and could make a comeback if people so desired.
Soon after that, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, a former prime minister and respected leader of the largest ruling party, said that instead of getting a new constitution, Nepal should revive an earlier one. The 1990 constitution declared Nepal a Hindu kingdom with a constitutional monarch.
There is now growing doubt that the ruling parties will not be able to fashion the new constitution they promised by May.
“We feel betrayed,” said Dr. K.B. Rokaya, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Nepal. “The Constituent Assembly we elected to give us a new constitution that would strengthen democracy and secularism has frittered away the time and opportunity given to it.”
The clamor for a Hindu state has been growing as the May 28 deadline for the new constitution draws near. When a Hindu preacher, Kalidas Dahal, held a nine-day prayer ritual in Kathmandu this month seeking reinstatement of Hinduism as the state religion, thousands of people flocked to him. The throng included three former prime ministers and top leaders of the ruling parties.
“The large turnout signals that Hinduism is enshrined in the hearts of the people and can’t be abolished by the government,” said Hridayesh Tripathi, a former minister and Constituent Assembly member whose Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party is the fifth-largest in the ruling alliance. “It was a mistake to abolish Hinduism in a hurry.”
Another blow for a Hindu state was struck by the Rastriya Prajatantra Party-Nepal (RPP-N), the only party that fought the 2008 election in support of monarchy and a Hindu state. It is now calling for a referendum. As a pressure tactic, it paralyzed the capital and its two neighboring cities in February by calling a general strike.
“The election gave the Constituent Assembly the mandate of writing a new constitution, not deciding issues of national importance,” said Kamal Thapa, the RPP-N chief who also was home minister during the brief government headed by Gyanendra. “Most people in Nepal want a Hindu state and a constitutional king. If their demand is not heeded, they will feel excluded and refuse to follow the new constitution. We are asking the government to hold a referendum on the two issues before May 28.”
With only two months left, it is clear the demand can’t be met if the constitution is to come into effect within the stipulated time. Now the specter of anarchy and violence hangs over Nepal.
Nepal’s Maoists, who fought a 10-year war to make Nepal a secular republic and who remain the former king’s most bitter enemy, say attempts have begun to whip up riots in the name of a Hindu state. The former guerrillas also allege that the campaign for the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion is backed by ministers, politicians from the ruling parties and militant religious groups from India.
Even if a new, secular constitution is approved by the deadline, there is still no guarantee that the rights of religious minorities would be protected.
Nilambar Acharya, who heads the committee that is drafting the new constitution, said it would be merely a broad guideline for the government; compatible laws would have to be drafted to protect rights.
“The previous constitution abolished ‘untouchability’ [a practice among Hindus of treating those at the bottom of the social ladder as outcasts],” Acharya told Compass. “But untouchability still exists in Nepal. To achieve all that the constitution promises, the mindset of society has to be changed first. For that, you need political will.”
Though Nepal became secular in 2006, Hinduism still gets preferential treatment. The state allocates funds for institutions like the Kumari, the tradition of choosing prepubescent girls as protective deities of the state and worshipping them as “living goddesses.” The state also gave money to organizers of a controversial, five-yearly religious festival, the Gadhimai Fair, where tens of thousands of birds are slaughtered as offerings to Hindu gods despite international condemnation.
There is no support, predictably, for Christian festivals. When the Constituent Assembly was formed – partly though election and partly by nomination – no Christian name was proposed even though the prime minister was authorized to nominate members from unrepresented communities.
Christian leaders want such religious bias abolished. Rokaya of the National Council of Churches of Nepal said Christians have recommended full freedom of religion in the new constitution: allowing one to follow the religion of one’s choice, to change one’s religion if desired or have the right not to be associated with any religion.
The churches have also asked the state not to interfere in religious matters.
“We are asking the government not to fund any religious activity, not to be part of any religious appointments and not to allow public land for any religious event,” Rokaya said.
The recommendations, however, may not be heeded. During their brief stint in power, the Maoists tried to stop state assistance for the Kumari. It led to violence and a general strike in the capital, forcing the party to withdraw the decision.
In its 2009 report on religious freedom in Nepal, the U.S. Department of State notes that while the interim constitution officially declared the country secular, “the president, in his capacity as head of state, attended major Hindu religious ceremonies over which the king previously presided.”
It also notes that there were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice.
“Those who converted to a different religious group occasionally faced violence and were ostracized socially,” it states. “Those who chose to convert to other religious groups, in particular Hindu citizens who converted to Islam or Christianity, were sometimes ostracized. They occasionally faced isolated incidents of hostility or discrimination from Hindu extremist groups. Some reportedly were forced to leave their villages.”
Dr. Ramesh Khatri, executive director of Association for Theological Education in Nepal, has experienced such persecution first-hand. When he became a Christian in 1972, his father disowned him. Then in 1984 he was arrested for holding a Bible camp. Though the case against him was dropped in 1990 after a pro-democracy movement, Khatri said hatred of Christians still persists.
“Christians can never sleep peacefully at night,” he said wryly. “The new constitution will make Nepal another India, where Christians are persecuted in Orissa, Gujarat and Karnataka.” The Oxford University-educated Khatri, who writes a column in a Nepali daily, said violent responses to his articles show how Nepal still regards its Christians.
“I am attacked as a ‘Rice Christian,’” he said. “It is a derogatory term implying I converted for material benefits. The antagonistic feeling society has towards Christians will not subside with the new constitution, and we can’t expect an easy life. The Bible says that, and the Bible is true.”
Christians continue to face persecution and harassment. In March, missions resource organization Timeless Impact International (TII) noted that a church in northern Nepal, near the foothills of Mt. Everest, was attacked by a local mob.
The newly established church in Dolakha district was attacked during a fellowship meeting in January. An ethnic mob headed by religious leaders destroyed the church meeting place, assaulted participants and warned them not to speak about Christianity in the village, TII said.
The situation, even now, remained unchanged.
“None of the church members have been able to return to their homes,” TII stated. “They feel completely unsafe and at risk.”
Report from Compass Direct News